Authors: Charles Atkins
Recent Titles by Charles Atkins
THE CADAVER'S BALL
ASHES ASHES *
MOTHER'S MILK *
* available from Severn House
First world edition published 2012
in Great Britain and in the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9â15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright Â© 2012 by Charles Atkins.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Vultures at twilight.
1. Detective and mystery stories.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-220-7 (ePub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8141-0 (cased)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
To Ida, Sue and Barbara
hilip Conroy's dying thought was:
it's a beautiful day
. In truth, it was the kind of fall afternoon that brought leaf peepers and antique hunters in late-model Mercedes and convertible BMWs to picturesque Grenville where Philip â thirty-six, blond and movie-star handsome â had lived his entire life. Lying face up on a bed of freshly fallen leaves, with a bullet wound like a Hindu bindi mark in the middle of his forehead, the last images that shot through his blue-green eyes and into his brain were of a blazing red maple, surrounded by a sea of yellow ash. A breeze swept the deep ravine, and a fresh wave of leaves lost hold of their branches and danced on the currents. Philip's last sounds were the running water of the Nillewaug River, where he had swum and fished as a child, and the crunching of twigs underfoot. He heard something dull and metallic, but was fully dead by the time the hundred-year-old iron metal snips wrapped around the finger next to the one where he wore Tolliver's gold wedding band. He did not hear the single grunt as his murderer brought the handles of the heavy tool together and severed the finger or the clicking open of a Ziploc bag into which the digit was dropped.
The nerve fibers just beneath his skin registered the bracing cold of the river as he was rolled into the lapping waters. The pores of his skin clamped shut for a final time, trying in vain to preserve body heat, not yet understanding that this natural response would no longer be necessary.
As Philip Conroy's body eventually came to rest wedged between an outcropping of rock and the twisted branches of an active beaver lodge, two miles due west auctioneer, Carl McElroy, cursed under his breath. His meaty arms tugged at the bottom drawer of the antique dresser; this is not what he needed in front of a packed house. The tow-headed owner of The Maple Leaf Auction knew that the secret drawer, a standard feature on Empire furniture, had been hopelessly jammed by the clumsy hands of five hundred previewers.
With a forceful yank, it gave; the drawer skidded across the stage and its old-lady contents â bobbins, buttons, decades-old coupons â spilled, flew and rolled toward the front row of Friday night regulars.
âKnew I'd get it open,' Carl quipped, while shielding his fingers from the audience as they pressed back a two-inch hunk of badly cracked crotch-mahogany veneer. As he tried to restore order, and a semblance of his dignity, a murmur spread through the standing-room-only auction that was filled with dealers, townies and avid collectors of nineteenth- and early eighteenth-century furnishings.
The focus had shifted to Mildred Potts in her usual front-row seat. The teased-blonde owner of Aunt Millie's Attic picked anxiously at the folds of her voluminous red-and-white striped skirt where something had just landed. âWhat is it? Get it off of me!' Her efforts impaired by the excited yapping and squirming of her white Shih Tzu, Taffy, who wore a bow that matched Mildred's dress. The little dog's tail twitched frantically and rapid snuffling noises emanated from her snout as she tried to free herself from Mildred, her focus riveted on what had landed in her mistress' dress.
Mildred shrieked, her rhinestone-crusted glasses fell, her
dog earrings whipped back and forth, and her face contorted as she batted at her dress, while struggling to control Taffy. âGet it off of me!'
Taffy yapped and Mildred, unable to rid herself of whatever had landed in her lap, pushed back in her folding metal chair.
âGet it off of me!' The rubber-tipped legs of her chair squeaked on the waxed wide-board floor.
Behind her the town's dentist â an avid collector of colonial-era firearms â and a pair of newlyweds in search of the âperfect' Hepplewhite dining table, tried to clear a path.
âMildred, Watch it!' Gustav Auchinstrasse, the morbidly obese proprietor of Eighteenth-Century Antiques, yelled as his doughy hands hung on to a tenuously perched soda and sausage-and-pepper hoagie.
He was too slow. With a piercing shriek, Mildred's legs kicked out, sending her chair toppling back. As she did, an unidentified object flew from her skirt and landed in the shadows beneath the stage. Fortunately for Mildred, rather than crack her head on the hardwood floor, she landed in the ample lap of Mister Auchinstrasse and his warm sausage sandwich and icy cream soda, which now dribbled down the side of her face.
While extricating herself from Gustav â who she considered an uncouth and opportunistic pig â Taffy leapt from her arm, and with more energy than she had shown in five years of life, tore beneath the stage.
As Mildred picked bits of meat and sauce from her over-processed hair, Auctioneer McElroy tried to resume the auction, while keeping his simmering anger in control. âI don't know what that was all about, but we've got over three hundred lots of fresh goods to get through. And time is moneyÂ .Â .Â . All right, then, everyone back to normal?' he asked, waving his hands and trying to make light of the situation. He looked at the red-faced Gustav, and hoped he wasn't too upset to spend the copious amounts of money that he was known to. âLet's get down to business.'
The audience attempted to oblige, when, from beneath the stage, high-pitched yaps and growls emanated.
âTaffy!' Mildred called out as she retrieved her retro-look glasses. âCome to Mommy, Taffy.'
The yips accelerated.
âCome on, girl.' Mildred looked around anxiously. âWhy won't she come? Taffy, come to Mommy.' Mildred got down on all fours. âCome on girl. Come on. Are you stuck? Come to Mommy.'
McElroy muttered, while plastering a good-humored smile. He hated that dog, and right now she was costing him money.
âCome on, girl,' Mildred pleaded. âCome on, sweetie.'
Carl had had enough. He stomped his booted foot on the wooden stage.
The dog shrieked and with a flash of fluffy white, Taffy reappeared at the far end of the stage.
âTaffy!' Mildred called, getting to her feet and throwing out her arms. âCome to Mommy.'
âOh my God!' the dealer closest to the dog backed away. With eyes wide and finger pointing, he exclaimed. âShe's got something in her mouth!'
Mildred misheard and thought there was something wrong with Taffy's mouth. She raced toward the Shih Tzu; she stopped.
Silence spread as mistress and dog faced off. The dealers in the front row pushed back, trying to create space between themselves and the snarling dog. Because there, tightly clenched between the bared and bloodstained teeth of little Taffy, was something made of flesh: human flesh.
To those who would later be questioned by the female detective from the State's Major Crime Squad, it seemed as if time stood still. In reality, it was only a couple of seconds before Mildred found her voice, and, to the horror of the assembled, made the obvious connection â and with an unfortunate choice of words.
âOh my, God! It's a finger! Taffy, give Mommy the finger.'
il, this makes three funerals in three months; it's too much,' Ada whispered, while pretending to listen to the graying minister of Grenville's First Episcopalian's rambling eulogy.
Ada Strauss is my best friend, but at sixty-two, and after decades spent in noisy manufacturing warehouses, her hearing has slipped, and she refuses to wear hearing aids. So what she thought discreet was overheard two pews in front of us. I squeezed her hand and said, âThey're dropping like flies.'
âEvie was lucky,' Ada persisted, looking like a gift from Tiffany's in a trim new robin's egg pantsuit, with fiery opal beads around her neck and dangling from her ears. âMassive coronary in her sleepÂ .Â .Â . Kind of like winning the death lotto.'
âSssshh!' The black-suited woman directly in front of me shot Ada a pinched look.
âSorry,' Ada responded, âI'm a little hard of hearing.'
The woman shook her head and returned to the homily. I'd heard enough of these to realize that the minister's effort was sub par, a string of platitudes in predictable sequences. He said a lot that was nice, but it didn't get to the heart of who our friend, Evie, had been. More than that, it sounded like the one he'd given at Herb Neville's two months back.
âSo who's next?' Ada whispered. âI'd like to go a month without a funeral. It's not too much to ask, is it? And haven't we heard this eulogy before?'
The shoulders tensed on the woman in front of us; I silently dared her to say something. Who was she? I took in the cut of her suit, custom tailored, black like mine. I glanced at Ada, still not used to her ultra-short and spiky silver hair. She'd been a bottle redhead up until last Thursday. â
Too much bother, Lil
,' she'd said as we'd sat in adjoining chairs at Lucy's Salon. â
I like the way you just need to get your ends trimmed a couple times a year; this has got to go.
' The beautician had already mixed the dye for her monthly touch up and Ada had waved her away. â
' she'd said, â
take it down to the roots; I want to see what's under there.
' The change had been dramatic; instead of making her look older, it was surprisingly chic, and made it hard not to notice the incredible blue of her eyes, and wonderfully sculpted shape of her face and still-tight chin and jaw, like a lovely pixie. And not for the first time, I had to wonder:
why was I thinking these things?